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I know in most developed countries, women can get rich from divorce. But suppose a poor man marries a rich woman and they divorce later. Can the poor man claim part of the woman's assets? Or does it work only the other way round?

I am asking in the context of United States. But I am also curious how foreign countries handle such a case.

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In a divorce, the terms "husband" and "wife" are almost always deprecated. When it comes to asset division, the key terms are "community (or marital property)" and separate property. In terms of custody, you will hear "custodial" and "non-custodial" parent. This should illustrate where the courts bias lies.

Divorce divides up three things - the kids, the property, and future income. These can be thought of best in terms of custody, property, and separation.

What follows is based on my current experience in mediation in Virginia. As a minor background, she kicked me out of the house after 15 years of marriage, four days after I buried my mom. I don't like her, but I'm going to try to be fair.

1. Custody

When it comes to custody of the children, yes, there is a bias towards the mother. Typically, you will get joint custody, but my lawyer told me straight up that the kids will be with the mother more than the father. Fathers only get sole custody in 10 - 15% of cases.

Anecdotally, my brother's wife suffered from schizophrenia. When their first son was born, the doctors had to convince her that the saline was not intended to abort the child, she had to be restrained, and my brother was only let in at the last minute because of her bizaare handling of the situation. When my nephew was born, we had to seek sole custody for the sake of the baby. There was an actual court case in which she demonstrated her own inability to care for the child by acting out in court. Based on this and on the testimony of the hospital, it was granted - although my brother would not divorce the mother. A year later, however, she was able to get the same judge to lift the sole custody by taking meds and behaving better. Had this been a divorce situation, the outcome may have been different, but it goes to show what kind of hurdles a dad faces if you are attempting to gain sole custody of the children.

2. Property

As far as asset division goes, the court's first preference is to let the parties decide, preferably through mediation. In my case, the mediator always encourages us to try to work out an "equitable" division before saying what the law provides.

In my case, for example, my soon-to-be-ex-wife and I have a lot of equity in farm. It was complicated by the fact that the property had been derelict until we fixed it up, using funds from a house that I sold after we were married, but which I had purchased before we were married. Because I purchased it prior, it should be what is called separate property - something over which the judge actually has no jurisdiction. In order to prove it is separate property, however, I had to do something called a Brandenburg Analysis in which each portion is vetted out. My ex, of course, has an interest in disputing my claim. I am having to produce the title when I purchased the house, sold the house, show that the rental income derived from the house was never co-mingled with marital income, when I sold the house that I never deposited the assets in a marital account, and that I intended to keep these assets separate. That's a pretty high bar, and one mistake - or a judge who is sympathetic to my ex - can disregard my claim.

The bias is typically for a 50-50 distribution, assuming that is "equitable." If there had been adultery, for example, or if my wife had no assets of her own, or if I could show that my wife had not fully contributed to the marriage, or if the marriage had been really, really short, he could alter the division of the marital property but not the separate property. If you can prove separate property, the judge has no control over the division. Marital property can be divided. The stories you hear (exaggerated a little bit) of the wife getting away with "everything" usually stem from a discrepancy between what the husband thinks he put into the marriage and what the judge thought was an equitable distribution on the way out.

In my case, I put $900,000 in cash into a house worth $1.4 million. $300,000 of that was from cash that I had raised prior to the marriage. Now, the mortage is $350K (let's call it $400 so the numbers are even.) There are two ways of considering what "equitable" might mean (aside from the fact that I was earning 5 times what she was, and that I've been paying this mortgage all along.) Personally, I think that $1million in equity, minus my $300K, means that equitable is ($300K + ($700K/2=$350K) $650K for me, $350 for her. A straight split would be $500 / $500. If she gets the $500, then, yes, it seems like she stole my money. From her perspective, that's "fair". This is why divorce stinks.

(Full Disclosure: Because her brother-in-law gave her sister-in-law 100% of their house, she simply expected me to give her everything and keep her mortgage. She said "If you were a good man, you'd just give me the house." Thankfully the mediator was able to say, "Why should he do that?")

3.Support

Support, at least in Virginia, is the most fluid thing of all. Again, the terms "husband" and "wife" are not used - there is only custodial and non-custodial parent. As stated above, however, that almost always means wife = custodial and husband = non-custodial parent. In Virginia, there is no formula for calculating support, but the general guideline is 28% of the non-custodial parent's income minus 58% of the custodial parent's. It sounds unfair to the custodial parent, but it keeps amazing me how quickly that adds up. Still, what you are seeing is that each parent is contributing.

  • If your name was on the house, she probably isn't allowed to kick you out. In fact it weakens your position WRT the house. At least that's what a lawyer told me. – Andy Feb 12 '15 at 0:34
  • It did. Significantly so. Let's just say I no longer believe judges care about justice. – Affable Geek Feb 12 '15 at 2:01
  • I think had you stayed (which if your name is on the title should be your legal right) the house would be viewed differently. Leaving gives the impression you're willing to give it up. – Andy Feb 12 '15 at 2:06
  • Hindsight is 20/20, and sometimes there are things more important than money. And, sometimes when you're grieving you don't always make the best choice. – Affable Geek Feb 12 '15 at 2:25
  • Sorry, not trying to criticize, I'm mainly commenting on this for the benefits of others that read your answer. Agreed that the situation is difficult and there are more important things than money, but there is also a need to think about your future after and if you can avoid being totally destroyed financially speaking. I do sympathize with you though. – Andy Feb 12 '15 at 2:50
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There's no difference between a man and a woman in most (if not all) Western countries in this regard.

The property is divided based on the State law, and there are 50 of these in the US. But these 50 different laws are generally divided into 2 categories: community property states and other states.

In the community property states, income earned and property acquired during the marriage is generally considered shared equally by the spouses (i.e.: while the hubby goes to the office and the wife bakes cookies at home1, the hubby's salary is 50% owned by the wife). That makes the division of property pretty straight forward during the divorce, however there still may be tons of legal issues as to what was earned when, and who contributed what to where. Some states have rules different from the others (for example, in Texas property that was acquired while living in a non-community state is considered community, while in California - not).

In the other states the income is not owned 50/50, but rather separate. Here, the cookie-baking wife can claim that without her cookies, the hubby wouldn't be able to earn anything, thus all his salary belongs to her, hence in the division of property during the divorce she should get everything. It is up to the courts to decide if this is so, thus much more litigation during the divorce.

The stories about women marrying rich people and then taking everything during the divorce are a bit exaggerated. Generally, it could probably happen when the wife marries someone not yet rich, and then divorces after the hubby got rich, making the exit with the significant amount of the hubby's earnings.

1I know that there're also hubbies baking cookies while the wives work, or hubbies baking cookies while the other hubby works, or wives making cookies while the other wife works, etc etc. All the same, no difference.

  • Is there some way the rich can protect their wealth from gold-diggers? It is so hard to get it right the first time, particularly if the other party is putting on a show for the money before marriage. I think pre-nuptial agreements is a solution. But are there states where such agreements are not recognized? – curious Sep 29 '13 at 10:17
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    That's a separate question, but generally no. A pre-nup is just a contract. Contracts are always valid, except when they conflict with the law or are invalid for some other reason. Assuming the contract is valid, there would be no reason not to honor it. – Affable Geek Sep 29 '13 at 12:01
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    In theory there's no difference between man and women, but in practice men get screwed in divorces. – Andy Feb 12 '15 at 2:07

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